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As global demand for Georgia pecans skyrockets, growers plan to increase production by 50 percent

In a typical year, Georgia leads the nation in pecan production and has for decades. But with the nut’s rising popularity and migration to the produce department, Georgia growers have enough new trees in the ground to increase production by about 50 percent between now and 2020. More importantly, Georgia growers believe they will find a welcoming market for those additional pecans.

This year, Georgia pecan production got off to an early start fFINAL-AntioxiNUT-Logo-w-cirollowing a mild winter and summer.

“We had such a mild winter and really not much of a spring at all — we went from a mild winter to a mild summer and we never did have any nights where you would go to bed concerned about temperatures dropping below freezing. It just got warm and stayed warm,” Duke Lane Jr. of Lane Southern Orchards in Fort Valley, GA, and chairman of the Georgia Pecan Commission, told The Produce News Sept. 27. “We’ve been early on everything and it’s parlayed on into the pecan harvest. Down around Thomasville and Albany they’ve gotten a good start on it. We’ve started shaking nuts in Middle Georgia as well and the whole thing is 10 days to two weeks earlier.”

Consumer awareness of health benefits from pecans is driving sales to record highs — and record prices. In May, Georgia pecans were added to the American Heart Association list of certified heart-healthy foods, earning the right to display the AHA Heart-Check mark. Ongoing research at California’s Loma Linda University and New Mexico State University shows that pecans may also reduce cholesterol. And the University of Georgia recently received a $1.2 million grant to further study the nutritional benefits of pecans.

“Last year was record pricing, the year before that was record pricing, this year we think we’re looking at good prices but we have what’s looking to be a little bit larger crop than projected,” Mr. Lane said. “We did 125 million pounds last year and they thought we’d come in at 70-75 million this year but the consensus now is Georgia will do at least 100 million pounds.”

Georgia growers still expect a very favorable market due to continuing worldwide demand for pecans. The state Department of Agriculture’s “Georgia Grown” program has been instrumental in introducing pecans to areas where they have been previously uncommon or unknown.

China was first to fall under the Georgia pecan’s sway a few years back. “When we first went to China they thought pecans were just a large walnut. It took several years before they actually came up with a name for it in the Chinese language,” Mr. Lane said.

Now, “That’s the same kind of thing that’s going on in India and Turkey and Dubai where they’re just starting to discover pecans. We’re seeing that kind of interest everywhere and it’s really got us all excited,” Mr. Lane said.

Excited enough that enough new pecan trees are in Georgia’s famous red clay to increase production to 200 million pounds by 2020.

“We’re really in a good situation with market conditions, growing conditions, we got key rains at the right time for 2012,” Mr. Lane said. “There are an awful lot of trees going in the ground right now — all the nurseries are sold out for 2013 and the planting will actually take place in January. I don’t think there are that many pecan orchards on the market — if you wanted to get in the business today you’d pay the devil trying to do it. The popularity and demand for pecans is skyrocketing and that’s a good thing. On the flip side of the coin, we as an industry have to keep promoting pecans and getting the word out around the world. About 2020, these trees that are being planted now will come into production and we will have hopefully extended our marketing abilities. So it’s really an exciting time. We’ve got our fingers crossed that the demand will continue to be there as we grow the crop.”

Mr. Lane cautions that pecan growers need to be aware of prices moving forward. It takes six or seven years for pecan trees to begin to bear and growers have costs to recoup, but “the last thing we want to do as growers is see these prices get too high for consumers. There’s a breaking point where these chainstores and Syscos and big food companies will use walnuts or almonds or something else. One thing we have to be cognizant of is we don’t want to see pecans get to the price where people don’t have to have them.”